The road to Bethlehem is long and hard in this dramatization of the birth of Jesus.
Director Catherine Hardwicke is best known for Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen, small but explosive pieces with rebellious youth at their center. But for her third directorial project, Hardwicke decided to tackle a subject matter a little larger—the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Nativity Story takes place during the year leading up to Christ’s birth. Life—already tough in the Judean desert of two millennia ago—is made only more punishing under the brutal rule of King Herod. He taxes people beyond their means to exert his power and lives in perpetual fear of a prophecy that the Messiah will come, and usurp his power when he does so.
It is under these circumstances that young Mary, played by 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), is unwillingly married off to Joseph (Oscar Isaac), a kind man who can provide for her. Shortly thereafter, the angel Gabriel appears to her. And the rest, as they say, is history.
For many, the “nativity” conjures the stuff of Christmas plays—crèches, manger scenes, frankincense, Silent Night. These are images that are, for lack of a better phrase, Jesus-centric. And understandably so—the story is important because it is about the arrival of the Christ child. And although The Nativity Story culminates in Christ’s birth, this movie really tells the tale of Mary and Joseph, on how this miraculous pregnancy tests them (and those around them) and ultimately brings them together.
The Nativity Story will undoubtedly draw a wide audience of Christian viewers, who will certainly be moved at the hardships faced by those believed to have brought Christ into the world. Luckily, the movie also holds up for those of us who were raised or live outside of the Christian religion, as well. Hardwicke’s depiction of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census brings to unmistakable light just how absolutely grueling such a task would have been. The script, by screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, Radio) is well-structured, although the dialog has troubling moments where characters break out into biblical language seemingly out of nowhere. Keisha Castle-Hughes is a somewhat brooding Mary, but her youth and strength bring an interesting aspect to the character. And the beautiful Shohreh Aghdashloo (24, House of Sand and Fog) was a wonderful choice for Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, the unlikely mother of John the Baptist.
But unquestionably best of all is Oscar Isaac’s Joseph. Casting such a newcomer to play the male lead is an unusual move; however, Isaac was more than equal to the task, easily delivering the most compelling acting job of the movie. Unfortunately, for as sparkling as Isaac is, the heavily-jeweled wisemen are absolutely awful. The inter-scenes of their own journey to Bethlehem are supposed to bring comic relief, an odd change of tone in a movie that is otherwise serious. As a result, Hardwicke’s magi come off as cringe-worthily ridiculous and over the top.
What's on the Disc
No miraculous extras on The Nativity Story's DVD. You've only got the bare minimum--English and Spanish subtitles, a choice of audio tracks (Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), and a choice of widescreen or full-screen format.